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surfing in Mackay
Mackay locals making the most of the recent tropical low that sent waves rolling towards their shores in north Queensland. Photo: Tom de Souza

Surfing Sugar City

Mackay is a place renowned for its sugar cane and coal, but surprisingly, it’s also home to occasional waves and a thriving little surf scene.

Surfing. 

Surfing!

I’m actually surfing!

Four months on the road through far north Queensland, island hopping, diving, camping, fishing.  All these things are a welcome distraction for any surfer, but they are still a distraction from the main event, and the tropical low pressure system sliding down Australia’s east coast right now is bringing surfing sharply back into focus. 

But as circumstances would have it, I’m confined to Mackay.  Sugar city, coal and One Nation country; the unofficial demarcation between northern and southern Queensland.  North from here the fishing shirts and XXXX Gold ads become increasingly prolific, and south from here, well, there are waves. 

At least, occasionally there are waves. 

And today is one of those occasions.

I’m looking out at the Mackay harbour wall, beneath the large ship loading facility, across to a turgid brown sea, where 30 knot south easterlies have whipped up two to three feet of messy wind swell.  The breakwater offers only a slight amount of shelter, but after months without waves I don’t care about the quality of the waves. 

I’m stoked just to get in the water. 

I’m also surprised to note the number of cars and surfers in the car park here.  There are 20 people in the water, and another ten or so watching.  There is an RV set up in the far corner with a Surf Lock Box on the door handle, a bunch of grommets loitering on the foreshore, their Dad’s and other old boys watching on beneath a casuarina tree, arms folded, sunnies on.   

I note my surprise to one of the men, and he tells me that Mackay actually has a thriving little surf scene, with around 200-300 surfers here, and a handful of surf shops in town. 

“It’s not the Sunshine or Gold Coast,” he says.

“But we do get the odd day of waves.  We might get some easterly trade wind swell from one of those high-pressure systems that set up in the Coral Sea, and in winter we get the odd groundswell that sneaks through The Reef. 

“You never expect much, maybe just clean little shoulder high peelers, but those winter days the water is usually gin clear, still pretty warm.  Living here, you’re always just stoked to get in the water.”

Too right, I nod. I grab a surfboard from a remote corner of the car, the deck covered with red dust and showing signs of having yellowed in the tropical sun.  I scrounge around the back of the car and find a block of wax that has melted and resolidified in some shapeless lump. 

Running down to the beach, I’m a little unnerved to note a council sign warning of box jellyfish and crocodiles. 

Meanwhile, down south we’ve only got the sharks to worry about. Photo: Tom de Souza

I’d much rather take my chances with a shark than a croc.  A fatal shark bite would be, I imagine, sudden and relatively painless, while a croc might drag you half-drowned to some muddy snag and leave you to rot. 

But these fears are unfounded, another young, local surfer tells me he’s been a lifeguard here since he was a small boy, and has never seen one at this beach.

“You mostly get them in the creeks and around the mangroves.  It’s almost unheard of to see one of them cruising along the beaches here.”

Also, he tells me, the wind is blowing the wrong direction to bring box jellyfish in to the beach.

“They come in with the northerlies.  You’ll be right with this sou-easter.”

I launch into the water, dodging floating logs of driftwood in the muddy shorebreak.

After some time away from surfing, I’m seeing it with renewed perspective. The sensation of just paddling and laying on a board is a welcome novelty, but there are other ugly things I haven’t missed.  The selfishness, the ego, the entitlement that comes with the gentrification of Australia’s coastal areas. 

Could be a fun beachbreak day anywhere on the east coast of Oz. Photo: Tom de Souza

All of those things are ingrained in the memory of movement, but here in Mackay there is almost none of that.  Everyone here is just stoked to be in the water.  Most people are riding high volume surfboards, some of them beginners, others are aging, lifelong surfers, and there’s the odd group of frothing but respectful grommets.  Everyone is all smiles, and some of the men are happy to share information about other breaks up and down the coast.  

After an hour in the water, I’m stoked to be hanging in the car park with a cold beer, remembering that calm, post-surf euphoria. 

It’s funny, though, for the past four months I haven’t even thought about surfing, and those who don’t surf might think that now I’ve had my fix I might be satisfied. 

But that isn’t the case.

Because surfing is one of those rare and sometimes devious pleasures, where the more you surf the more you want to go surfing.  And right now, this muddy windswell has reignited the froth. 

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